Edwards is accused of orchestrating a scheme to take about $1 million from two wealthy campaign donors to hide his pregnant mistress Rielle Hunter while he ran for the White House in 2008. In the 2004 campaign, when he ran for vice president with Sen. John Kerry, Edwards spoke often of the two Americas, saying the rich and poor needed an equal say.
"Campaign finance laws are designed to bring the two Americas together at election time," prosecutor Bobby Higdon said. "John Edwards forgot his own rhetoric."
But Edwards attorney Abbe Lowell accused prosecutors of trying to use sordid details of the cover-up of an affair to send a famous politician to prison, and said prosecutors presented no evidence in more than two weeks of testimony that Edwards knowingly violated the law.
"This is a case that should define the difference between a wrong and a crime ... between a sin and a felony," Lowell told the jury. "John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those. But he has pleaded not guilty to violating the law."
Each side was given two hours Thursday to make their case to jurors, who will begin deliberating the case Friday.
Higdon opened his argument by recounting Edwards' announcement on Dec. 30, 2006, to run for president at an event in his hometown of Chapel Hill. The day was also the first time Edwards' wife Elizabeth came face to face with his mistress, whom the candidate had hired as a videographer through his political action committee.
"He wanted to be our leader. He asked for our vote. He had a popular wife and beautiful family, and on that day, the seeds of his destruction were sown."
Prosecutors recounted his affair with Hunter, her pregnancy and Edwards' plan to have his close aide, Andrew Young, claim that he was the father of the baby. Edwards knew if the affair became public, it would destroy his political career, and he would "deny, deceive and manipulate" at every turn, Higdon said.
The money from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and campaign finance chairman Fred Baron that went to Young and Hunter was over $1 million, prosecutors said. Edwards was well aware of the $2,300 legal limit on campaign donations, Higdon said.
"It is a simple rule and applies to every candidate and every donor," Higdon said.
Edwards is charged with six criminal counts including conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, accepting contributions that exceeded campaign finance limits, and causing his campaign to file a false financial disclosure report. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.
At the trial, prosecutors have shown two members of Edwards' inner circle, Baron and Young, engaged in a yearlong cover-up to hide the married presidential candidate's mistress from the media.
Prosecutors described how Edwards became increasingly desperate to hide the affair, saying after Hunter was photographed by the National Enquirer in December 2007, Edwards asked Young to lie.
Baron provided Young and Hunter with more than $400,000 in cash, luxury hotels, private jets and a $20,000-a-month rental mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"This wasn't a guy quietly helping a friend. It was a full rescue operation ... for a teetering campaign," Higdon said, describing Baron's involvement.
In January 2008, while Andrew Young, his wife, Cheri, and Hunter were hiding in the rental mansion, there were 63 calls between them and Edwards, Higdon said. Sometimes there were four calls a day, with conversations routinely more than 90 minutes.
"The whole scheme was cooked up to support John Edwards' political ambitions," Higdon said.
Lowell argued that the Youngs, who both testified at the trial, gave inconsistent accounts about what Edwards knew about the money.
"Even those two, who could shame Bonnie and Clyde, couldn't get their story straight," Lowell said.
Lowell reminded the jury that it was the Youngs who received the $725,000 in secret checks from Mellon, using most of it to help pay for a $1.6 million dream home, not to care for Hunter. Baron wired another $325,000 directly to the couple's builder, on top of another $21,000 in cash provided by the Texas lawyer.
Lowell emphasized that none of the money from Mellon and Baron was ever deposited into a campaign account, used for expenses such as road signs or staff salaries, and that no money went to the candidate himself.
Nowhere in any federal regulation does it say that payments from one third party to another third party for personal expenses is a campaign contribution, Lowell told the jury.
"If it is not a contribution for someone to pay the transportation or living expenses of campaign staffers, then how in the world can that be true for a mistress?" Lowell asked the jurors, some of whom were nodding as he made his argument.
Lowell repeatedly hammered away at the Youngs' credibility and said they were in it for the money, including a lucrative book deal and a possible movie.
"He needs a conviction for his next chapter in his next book," Lowell said.
In rebuttal arguments, prosecutor David Harbach acknowledged Andrew Young's inconsistencies on the stand, but questioned why he would have orchestrated a scheme that had him harboring Edwards' mistress while he still lived with his wife.
"This guy is a criminal mastermind? Andrew Young? That's nonsense. Andrew Young kept a lot of the money for himself. Of course he did. Has he lied in the past? Of course he has. But if Andrew Young could say anything to help the government's case, don't you think he could have done a better job?"